Rhinos in spacesuits. A blood-sucking alien disguised as a little old lady. Men made of leather. Rain falling upwards. A hospital transported to the moon. No, CASUALTY isn? going a bit peculiar in its old age ?it can only be the return of DOCTOR WHO, launching its third series since its spectacular reinvention in 2005 with a lively, witty, hugely visual episode which kick-starts a Saturday night TV schedule which has been veering dangerously back into Light Entertainment Hell in the last few months. Simply put ?he? back, and it? about time.

?mith and Jones? a typically riotous and rambunctious script by Russell T Davies, has a lot to do. Year three of any series is a difficult place to be ?the audience is used to the show by now and needs to be persuaded to stick with it ?and for DOCTOR WHO this year the challenge of keeping the momentum going is even greater because at the end of the last series the show lost perhaps its most winning asset since its resurrection. Losing Billie Piper from the series could have been an even greater blow than losing Christopher Eccleston at the end of series one. Eccleston moving on turned out to be something of a Godsend and series two, with the more affable and enthusiastic David Tennant on board, saw the series consolidate its popularity and demonstrate just how flexible its format can be. But DOCTOR WHO without the photogenic Billie, the darling of the redtops and the talk of the chattering classes? Could this be a hurdle too high for the suddenly-cool sci-fi legend?

Undaunted ?and presumably emboldened by two years worth of glowing notices and stellar audience figures ?BBC Wales marched confidently into series three with a big, brash adventure which absolutely plays to all the series strengths (and one or two of its minor weaknesses) and replaces Billie with the formerly-unknown Freema Agyeman (who made a brief ill-fated appearance in last year? ?rmy of Ghosts?episode) as trainee nurse Martha Jones. She? the main selling point of ?mith and Jones??never mind your spaceships and your scary aliens ?and she grabs the episode by the throat, runs with it and, at the end of forty-five pretty breathless minutes, it? hard not to imagine that most of the audience won? have been scratching their heads and trying to remember the name of the girl who was in DOCTOR WHO last year.

Davies cleverly returns to his debut script for the series ?2005? ?ose??as his gateway to introducing Martha. In ?mith and Jones? as in the earlier episode, Martha? life and lifestyle are beautifully sketched in a short, punchy sequence where she? on the phone to her distinctly dysfunctional family ?her cuckolded mother, am-I-bovvered brother, excitable sister, dopey father, dopey father? flighty new lady friend ?before she bumps into a rather odd manic-looking man in the street who mumbles something incoherent whilst waving his tie in the air. So here? Martha – intelligent, independent, a young career woman; almost the complete opposite of Rose? apathetic shop girl and yet she, like Rose, needs a little something extra in her life, a little break from the monotony of her crazy family and her demanding job. Like ?ose? we meet the Doctor mid-adventure ?he? already on the trail of something unusual when he first bumps into Martha. There are other nods to that first story too ??un!?shouts the Doctor as he grabs Martha? hand and they flee from advancing aliens. The final scene, beautifully written and performed, has enormous echoes of the Doctor tempting Rose aboard the TARDIS, although this time he only wants Martha on board as a way of thanking her for literally saving his lives. Martha, too, is a more reluctant traveller and yet she still can? resist this allure of the man who? kissed her in the name of genetic transfer and who wears tight-fitting suits. It? an intriguing new dynamic; the Doctor really wants companionship but is in self-denial and Martha, despite being just about as grounded in her own reality as any companion ever to appear in the show, is clearly both fascinated by and attracted to this dashing, other-worldly stranger.

Character stuff aside, this is DOCTOR WHO with all guns blazing and Davies throws everything but the cosmic kitchen sink into the mix. FX wizards at the Mill surpass themselves with their CGI images of the hospital torn from its Thameside moorings and transplanted to a barren lunar landscape, three Judoon spaceships thundering overhead before settling in the moondust to disgorge dozens of helmeted aliens. The Judoon themselves, clearly a nod to the ?lassic?series Sontarans, are a worthy addition to the DOCTOR WHO monster canon and it? just a shame that we only see one creature in its full rhino-faced glory. The mask is a masterpiece of prosthetics and animatronics, beautifully detailed and yet quite repellant. Even better is the script? twist that casts the creatures not as the bad guys but as a rather ruthless force of space police-cum-mercenaries. The Judoon are crying out for a reappearance in the show more than any other new alien since DOCTOR WHO? return. ?mith and Jones?is just non-stop action once the hospital is transported to the moon. The Doctor and Martha take to their heels more than once, pursued by the mysterious Slabs and later the laser-wielding Judoon themselves. The real alien cuckoo in this nest though, is the Plasmavore, a blood-sucking alien on the run after committing some heinous intergalactic crime. She? played by former CORONATION STREET star Anne Reid and her performance, whilst sometimes a bit arch, is full of ruthless venom. Roy Marsden as hospital consultant Mr Stoker (Plasmavore?lood-sucking?toker?eddit?) is less fortunate, criminally-underused in a role which ultimately requires him to clump through some creaky, rather forced dialogue as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he? on the moon and will probably never see his daughter again.

Director Charles Palmer rises to the challenge of bringing all this madness to the screen with huge panache. The episode looks suitably cinematic; there? plenty going on and there? even time for some lovely directorial flourishes ?such as the scene where we see the moon reflected in a puddle shortly before the image is dispersed by Annalise? clattering high-heels and some generally beautifully composed dramatic and action sequences.

An episode as charged as ?mith and Jones?might normally have attracted a 5-point rating because there? really very little of consequence wrong with it. But the trailers we?e seen of later episodes look as if the very best is yet to come this year and there are one or two slightly jarring moments here. Tennant is, of course, right on the money as the Doctor but the moment where he tries to shake off radiation he absorbed in his battle with one of the Slabs brought back uncomfortable memories of the ?ody swap?sequence from last year? ?ew Earth? some the screaming extras don? really do the material justice and there? some amusement to be had from the idea that the Plasmavore intends to hide behind a screen to avoid a bombardment of lethal radiation which will wipe out everyone in the hospital and half the population of the Earth!

But criticisms here are really pretty minor and also pretty churlish. This is as bold and brassy an episode as we could have dared to expect from a series which, not unreasonably, could have been expected to be a bit unsure of itself without its famous leading lady on board. But we?e long since learned not to underestimate Russell T Davies. ?mith and Jones?bounces along as if it? Day One all over again and in Freema Agyeman? delightful and ballsy Martha we clearly have a brand new time traveller to fall in love with for the next few months and hopefully way beyond. DOCTOR WHO is back and it? as good as ever it was. Hooray and bless, as Mr Davies himself might say.


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